True Detective is moving into unknown territory. For the first time in the show’s run we have been left with an image, burdened with a heavy past, moving toward a future not known by anyone inside the show’s delicate clockwork collage. It’s a powerful moment, supported with 17 years worth of character building mythology delivered through six episodes of constant surprise, and it turns the primary drive for the show from “whodunit” to “who’s-gonna-do-it.”
But before we get to the present, there is still some of that heavy past to contend with.
We catch up with Marty (Woody Harrelson) in 2002, standing outside a jail cell containing two sorry looking statutory rapists, removing his rings. We have seen various tiny glimpses of the monster in Marty, always threatening to burst out of his extended chin as he tries to underbite his rage away, and it’s immediately apparent that these young, dumb kids are in for something stomach turning.
Marty gives them an ultimatum: they can settle it in here or he can file charges (“I got a lot of brothers in Angola that’d love to owe me a favor.”) With a mean “C’mon out here,” Woody chooses for them. He beats one of the youths to a pulp as the other watches exactly what will be done to him. We don’t get to see the second beating, but judging by the effect it has on the momentarily satiated bad detective – Marty vomits in the parking lot immediately after doling out his wrathful dad justice – it’s clear that no one in the jailhouse won in that conflict, be they rapist or shitty cop.
The opening scene is not just another example of how True Detective is masterful when it comes to turning the camera off to let the imagination fill in the gap with something worse. This repetition we see in Marty is solidifying who he is to us. As he removes his rings and puts on his kid-beating gloves, the show is telling us that before he’s a father, before he’s a husband, and certainly before he’s an officer of the law, Marty Hart is a violent and angry man. If this somehow ends with Marty framed as the hero, the statue commemorating his deeds will have a lot of attention paid to his rage-holding chin.
“Haunted Houses,” in the fashion that True Detective has accustomed us to, changes the narrative formula yet again. With Rust (Matthew McConaughey) having concluded his interrogation via six pack in the show’s present tense 2012 timeline last week, after waxing fringe-scientific on the nature of time and demanding a warrant before offering up a look into his private storage room, we’re down one unreliable narrator at the top of episode six.
Interestingly, this only has an effect on the framing of Rust-centric scenes that take place in 2002 and not our vantage point inside them. It’s the confirmation that we are getting a privileged view of events as they transpired, regardless of who tells the story in the future.
We see him investigating his list of missing persons, carrying his well worn hardcover notebook that earned him his nickname. The Taxman is on to the trail of crimes apparently related to the Yellow King case.
The lack of Rustin Cohle in the 2012 interrogation scenes is just starting to get unnerving, when modern detectives Gilbough and Papania give us a whole new angle on the lies and deceptions that have become what passes for testimony in this show. The investigators invite Maggie Hart (Michelle Monaghan) into the seat that’s been home to Rust and his beer-can people for the previous five episodes as she unknowingly provides information to be compared to her now-officially-ex-husband, Marty.
She sticks up for Rust’s character. She knew him to be a good man, she claims as we are treated to a quick look at Cohle poring over maps, clearly giving in to either obsession or desperation. But Gilbough and Papania are not convinced. In their minds, Rust has been killing people for a very long time and getting away with it.
Marty is struggling with his masculinity in 2002 when he runs into the underage prostitute from the backwoods brothel he and Rust canvassed back when the case was hot in 1995. Her name is Beth and she works at a T-Mobile store. She recognizes Marty as he tries to drink away the Walgreens bags filled with “All the makings of a good time,” which are packages upon packages of tampons for the family that he’s currently tyrannizing. It’s no surprise that this quickly leads to HBO’s requisite sex scene for the hour, watched over by Beth’s little chachkies of a devil and angel (the red one given a bit more focus than the other to underline Marty’s self-conscious villainy).
Meanwhile, Rust finds another sorry soul. The reverend from episode two, “Seeing Things” has given up and taken to the bottle after losing heart when the vandalism of this worship tents didn’t stop. He tells Rust about Billy Lee Tuttle’s religious organization called Wellsprings, set up to finance rural schools like the abandoned one filled with the stick-crafts and etchings that set Cohle on this independent investigation.
Apparently in 1988 there was an incident of children “being interfered with” that was kept internal, and Rust gets the reverend to confess that the reason he left had something to do with finding pictures of sleeping naked kids tucked away in an obscure Franciscan mystic tome that even Google doesn’t know about (at least at the time of this writing) called “The Letters of Telios de Lorca.” He took the disturbing photos Deacon Ferar, a close ally of Tuttle’s, who made him prove that they weren’t a veiled and perverted confession.
Just in case the show was making it too easy to forget about the monster tucked away inside our new millennium hero turned today’s deep thinking prime suspect, we are treated to one of the Taxman’s famous cathartic interrogations. He provides the suspect of the day, a thrice grieving mother blaming SIDS for her infanticide, with the means for reconciliation, and after getting a confession quickly mentions that bad things happen to people who do bad things to children in jail.
“If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.”
It’s one of many windows into Rust’s personal darkness we’re treated to in “Haunted Houses” and, in addition to recalling the suicide of the last confessed murderer that we saw Rust interrogate, it underlines how self-righteous this crusader has always been. He is a man who holds his own world view as secular gospel, with nothing but judgement and contempt for the people he deals with.
Its this self-righteousness that gets between Rust and Marty. The partners relationship is straining as they are consumed by their personal vices of pride and lust. Cohle is well aware that he has been the one providing all the breaks in their cases and can’t stand the lack of detective work being done on his adultering partner’s behalf, while Hart is sick and tired of getting overburdened and chewed out on account of the nutjob he’s been vouching for all these years while trying to score extramarital intercourse and neglecting his job.
Rust pays a visit to Kelly, the girl he and Marty pulled out of the Carcosa drug compound in 1995. He’s digging deep for leads here, asking the catatonic trauma victim if there were more abusers than just Ledoux and his big self-detonated partner. She tells him of a man with scars who made her watch what he did to the boy she was imprisoned with. She calls him “The Giant” and as Rust pushes to find out if the scars were on this third man’s face, she breaks into frantic screams as if she were staring at the monster himself.
At this point, we lose our second narrator. Maybe Gilbough and Papania are getting to a point that Marty would rather not remember, or maybe he’s tired of defending a guy he thinks deserves whatever punishment awaits the eventual guilty party in this 17 year epic of paperwork, but when the discussion turns to upcoming drama involving Billy Lee Tuttle, Marty latches up his briefcase and hits the road.
This sets the episode into a state of free fall. The two main narrators are gone and everything is framed by the lies of the woman that broke whatever last flimsy bond the two shared. Maggie continually says that she doesn’t know what it was that came between the two men, one of whom she is constantly vouching for out of a sense of remorse.
She discovers Marty’s new affair extremely quickly in 2002: he is cleaning a lone outfit in the washing machine as she does laundry, prompting her to check his camera phone history. This leads her to an incriminating picture-sext that Marty still has on his phone while he shouts at her from the shower that they should go on a date night.
She won’t confront him about it, because he doesn’t care. We know it too, having seen him play the self-pity card to record levels of disgrace in an attempt to save a marriage that he clearly finds little satisfaction in. Again, before he is anything, Marty is violently selfish. Instead, she shows up at Rust’s after failing to sleep with a stranger named Bruce at a bar.
It’s been a particularly trying day for the true detective. He’s been suspended without pay and handed 30 hours of mandatory counselling for bracing Billy Lee Tuttle in a confrontation that screamed “Big Bad” as the man behind the abandoned schools dodged Rust’s inquiries and practically begged for the eventual break-in we know he is doing to receive on Cohle’s behalf.
Maggie forces herself on Rust, and they have the ugly, messy sex that isn’t generally associated with HBO: surrounded by computer-printed photographs of murder victims pinned to the wall between two desperate people at their most lost. When its over Maggie apologizes by stating her motivation, “This will hurt him.”
She confronts Marty in the dark kitchen that’s become television shorthand for infidelity confessions. She saw his texts and she fucked his partner. He holds his hand to her throat. She calls him a coward.
The two men clash in the parking lot of the police department, Marty instigating with a dive tackle and setting his boiling rage against Rust’s cold and calculated willingness to hurt. The two do a number on each other, Marty eventually being pulled away by by a group of watching cops. They are chewed out further and Rust quits.
During the fight Rust broke the tail light of his red truck, by throwing Marty into it. That same image that we are left with ten years later at the very edge of the byzantine narrative Nic Pizzolatto has woven for us with the help of director Cary Fukunaga.
In 2012 Marty is hailed on the road by Rust. The two haven’t talked in ten years and even they don’t know what’s going to happen, but they have both just relived the past in their own solitary way, building each other up to the new detectives on their old case; erecting idols of each other by editing, omitting, glorifying and trying to forget.
Going in to the final two episodes Rust and Marty aren’t able to hide behind revisionist history and generous lies from former loved ones. So far they’ve been able to protect themselves with words, silence and philosophical ranting, but when the truck with the broken tail light comes to a stop only two things are for certain:
Someone is going to buy the other a beer, and Marty is bringing his gun.